February 29th, 2016

Refrigerator Use and Care

Home Owners Network

Refrigerators are a frequent source of questions to our Home Owners Network ‘Ask the Experts’ service. Here are some tips for installing and maintaining your refrigerator to avoid problems and for troubleshooting problems if they occur. The most important tip about any appliance is to read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You can usually find these instructions by entering the appliance manufacturer name and the model number into an internet search engine.

Installing Your Refrigerator

Refrigerators come in a wide variety of sizes and styles with an equally wide variety of features. They are all, however, basically the same whether it is a small “dorm” refrigerator or a large built-in refrigerator. Refrigerators remove heat from inside the refrigerator and expel the heat into the surrounding air. This tells us important facts about installing your refrigerator. First, all refrigerators need space on all sides, including the top and bottom, for air circulation. One-half inch will usually suffice, but some models may require more at the back of the refrigerator. Many models also need free space in front of the grille at the bottom of the refrigerator. Second, refrigerators should not be installed outdoors or in a garage. The temperature extremes, both hot and cold, may prevent the refrigerator from maintaining the intended temperature inside. Third, avoid locating the refrigerator near a heat source such as an oven, range, cooktop, or a furnace supply register. Finally, avoid locating the refrigerator where it will be in direct sunlight. Refrigerators in hot locations will work much longer to maintain temperature. This increases operating cost and may reduce the refrigerator’s service life.

 shutterstock_304178117The refrigerator should be level from side to side. The refrigeration system may not work properly. The icemaker may not work properly either. A slight tilt toward the back (about ¼ inch) is sometimes recommended to ensure that the doors close.

The refrigerator’s electricity supply is important both for operation and for safety. The ideal electrical supply for a refrigerator is a dedicated, grounded 15 or 20-amp circuit. Electrical codes allow refrigerators to share a circuit with the kitchen countertop receptacles, so a dedicated circuit is not required. Refrigerators should be plugged into a grounded (3-slot) receptacle using the plug supplied with the refrigerator. Do not cut off the center (grounding) prong and do not use an adapter plug that bypasses the grounding prong. If you have an old-style 2-slot receptacle, you should have a qualified electrician install a new grounded branch circuit. Extension cords are not recommended. If you need to use one, be sure the wires are at least 12 gage.

Do not plug a refrigerator into a ground fault interrupt circuit (GFCI). If the GFCI trips, which they sometimes do, you may lose all the refrigerator contents. All garage and outdoor receptacles are (should be) GFCI circuits. Kitchen countertop receptacles are (should be) GFCI circuits.

The Icemaker Water Supply

Many refrigerators have an automatic icemaker; some also have a water dispenser. The water supply for these features is a frequent source of leaks and water damage. Once installed, these lines are frequently forgotten until leak evidence appears. By that time, substantial damage and mold growth could have occurred. It is important to use the correct material to supply water to the refrigerator.

Newer houses often have a water supply valve in a box near the refrigerator opening. If you’re lucky and have one, connecting the water supply is usually easy. Use copper tubing or a braided stainless steel flexible water connector between the valve and the refrigerator. Install the tubing connector according to manufacturer’s instructions which may include using Teflon tape on the connections.

If you’re not lucky, you will need to use a water supply installed by someone else or you will need to install a new water supply. The water supply may be any material approved for cold water. The most convenient material for new installations is usually PEX. PEX is a flexible plastic tube. It should have printing on the tube that identifies it as PEX. If it does not, the material may be inexpensive plastic tubing that is thin and not appropriate for use as water supply tubing. This material is sold for refrigerator water supply tubing, but we do not recommend using it because it can break and leak. This thin plastic tubing may not pass through walls, ceilings, and floors and through any other concealed areas.

Troubleshooting Refrigerator Problems

No power; refrigerator does not operate and the light does not come on. (1) Check the temperature control; is it turned on? If no, turn the control on enough to start the compressor. (2) Check the plug, is the refrigerator plugged in? If no, plug it in. (3) Check the electrical panel; is the circuit breaker tripped or fuse blown? If yes, reset the circuit breaker or replace the fuse. (4) Check the light; is it bad? If yes, replace the light with the light type recommended by the refrigerator manufacturer.

Refrigerator/freezer does not cool. Give a newly activated refrigerator at least 24 hours before worrying. It takes time for the temperature to stabilize. (1) Check the temperature control; is it turned down far enough? Temperature in a refrigerator should be around 38˚ F. and around 0˚ F. If no, turn the control on enough to start the compressor. (2) Has the door been left open or has the door been opened or closed frequently? If yes, keep the door closed for several hours.

Icemaker is not producing ice. Give a newly activated freezer at least 12 hours before worrying. It takes time for the temperature to stabilize. (1) Check the icemaker power or lock switch, if any. Is it off? If yes, turn it on. (2) Check the metal bar that stops ice production (some icemakers). Is it up? If yes, press it down to turn on the icemaker. (3) Check the icemaker water supply valve. Is it on? If no, turn it on and be sure to check for leaks. (4) Check the freezer temperature. Is it too high? If yes, turn down the temperature. (5) Check the icemaker or ice chute (ice in door refrigerators) for ice cubes that are stuck in the icemaker tray or chute. Is anything stuck? If yes, carefully remove the stuck cubes according to manufacturer’s instructions.

No water at the water dispenser. (1) Check the water supply lock switch, if any. Is it set to locked? If yes, unlock it. (2) Check the water supply valve. Is it on? If no, turn it on and be sure to check for leaks. (3) Have you changed the water filter in the past several months (some models)? If no, try changing the water filter; it might be clogged.

Refrigerator makes odd sounds. Modern refrigerators can make clicking, snapping, whirring, humming, and sounds of water dripping. Most of these noises are normal and you will learn after a few weeks which sounds are normal for your refrigerator. Check your instruction manual if you are concerned and call the refrigerator manufacturer’s help line if you are still concerned.

Repair or Replace?

The charge to come to your house and evaluate a refrigerator problem often runs in the $100 – $150 range depending on where you live. Parts and labor to repair are extra. Refrigerators are expensive, so repair may be a good option for some refrigerators.

Repair or replace is sometimes a tough call. Here are some guidelines. If the refrigerator is older than about fifteen years, it is usually best to replace it. Money spent on a service call may not be worth it. Consider putting that money into a new refrigerator instead. If the refrigerator is between one and eight years old, you might consider paying a service technician to estimate the repair cost. If the cost to repair is less than half the cost of a new refrigerator, repair might be prudent; otherwise replace.

The really tough situation is when the refrigerator is eight and fifteen years old. That situation is a roll of the dice about what to do. This is when our ‘Ask the Experts’ service may help. Tell us about your situation. Please include as many details as possible so we can provide you with our best advice. The manufacturer name, model and serial number are essential. A picture often helps too.

If you need a qualified technician to help you, try our ‘Find a Contractor’ located in your Home Owners Network account.

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